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Software State of affairs – Maintaining OO

Last week, a friend at work was analysing code in Powerbuilder and question came up about function Overloading and we branched into Object Orientation in general. That question got me thinking. Though Object oriented programming has been around for a while, the concepts of OO are not completely understood or followed.

I posted about OO concepts here earlier. To do that I bought and read several books, sifted through the web a lot. There were so much confusion and conflicting ideas. Most of those books use obvious objects like animals, people etc in explaining OO concepts that what we learn in those is not enough to translate in to real life OO programming. I mentioned about some of these problems in my earlier post. More and more languages are adding OO concepts, yet people who are used to traditional (procedural) way of programming, struggle to adapt to it or even completely reject it. Often times, Syntax comes in the way of understanding. For e.g., Java borrowed so much from C, C++, that it’s often considered to be just enhanced C, thus OO nature of it is completely ignored. And even if these developers switch to OO eventually, the objects they come up with are just repackaged C code, thus perpetuating the problem!

The application I currently support was written in Powerbuilder using a framework called EAF. The software also has business framework that is built around this, definitely a good extensible architecture. Yet, the software has degenerated over the years. Part of the problem is lack of understanding of the framework and/or OO concepts in general. I remember, when I started here, this framework was considered to be the main reason for all evil in the software! There was not enough documentation about proper framework usage, thus it was easy to blame it!

When new developers came in, they wrote and rewrote functions and objects that completely ignored underlying framework thus code is bloated. Further, supporting business has been utmost priority, so such technical issues were completely ignored. I feel, every maintenance project should include the maintenance of the software itself – in addressing technical issues and retuning it to keep it running good, like we do with our cars. After all, business will eventually be affected, if we didn’t take care of such technical issues in time! The very first problem I solved in this software was a technical issue – there was a memory leak (due to improper handling of Object pooling) in the software that kept crashing the server during peak usage in the prior years. Business of collecting taxes, was indeed affected during those crashes. And I cannot imagine how much time, effort and resources were wasted during those times.

Another problem I see in software maintenance, is the tendency to solve code smells and code bloats by adding more resources – more servers, more disk space, more memory. When a car runs sluggish, we can’t solve it by just adding more engines or more tires, can we? Why is it OK with software? Prior solution to the memory leak problem I mentioned above, was to add more servers and a script to automate the Server Restarts! Once the memory leak was fixed, no more frequent crashes!!!

To curb some of the issues in the application, I recommended and started on a project to re-factor some of the code in the application earlier this year. Main goal was to improve performance in our web application, but I wanted to clean up and reintroduce some of the framework methodologies.  Though there was some push back initially, other developers started buying into the idea. Yet, I see the reluctance to change existing ways; after all the software works during normal (low?) usage and business is OK (if not happy), why change those? When I first introduced log4J (logging libraries for Java) for logging in our JSP pages, it took the team at least couple of months to buy into the idea, in spite of me showing stats to support the change.

Our application architecture uses EA Server (EAS) as the middle tier. EAS supports Java and Powerbuilder objects naturally.While Powerbuilder is great for developing applications quickly, Java was used for any multi-threaded activities such as caching and logging etc. We even have Java Stored procedures running inside Oracle database! I recently introduced tools like Eclipse, Ant etc. to streamline Java development activities. With such exposure and addition of new Java packages prompted a team member to say to the effect “we are becoming a Java shop whether we like it or not”. I’ve tried to explain in vain that it was all there before and why we even need them!!

Part of the problem is also lack of career planning and/or training. I remember the days when companies invested in training employees to keep up with the industry trends. Now, we seem to be spending more in buying those extra servers to support more memory leaks 🙂

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